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Challenges Section

Philosophy of Democracy
Challenges for Democracy

   About this series.

There are many philosophies of democracy, and they each tell us something about the limits of democracy. But they are often only intellectual exercises which lead to epistemological (nature of knowledge) dead ends. The logical extremes force logical exceptions with useless conclusions - philosophy can prove nothing in and of itself so it easily goes off on a tangent as an intellectual exercise.

Exceptions don't disprove the whole. The Scientific Method doesn't work that way. Exceptions populate scientific theories like witch brooms on trees - far from disproving rules, they enable us to explore further while the theory gives us a framework to work within.

All philosophy of democracy must be local, meaning that it must be grounded in experience or it is meaningless. Therefore, what challenges have we found recently from experience with democracy about its limits and challenges?

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Democracy, freedom, and philosophy

Democracy is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. Its birth was from noble but radical ideas within a few Greek City States before 400 BCE, that possibly grew out of recognition that existing political systems brought great injustice to people. Except for democratic ideas, these states were much like any other political entity at the time: everyone was warring with everyone in a never ending power struggle. Eventually the democratic Greek City States were undone by conflict in the region.

Democracy is the most wide-spread political system in the world today. Many countries based their democratic constitution on the US Constitution. Democracy allows every person to have a voice in their government. It enables great freedom for individuals.

Even countries like China have democratized their governments, allowing citizens to vote on their leaders and become entrepreneurial in their economics, slowly enacting democratic reforms.

People passionately fight and die for their freedom, and even to gain freedom for others. People want to have and express their individual and collective identities, which may be an even more important concept than freedom itself. They want free from oppression, want justice, and want to engage in collective activity that promotes everyone's wellbeing. Some of these needs have been recognized and formulated into political systems from as early as 5000 years ago in ancient Sumer. Democracy has proven best for obtaining those goals of identity, individual freedom, and collective wellbeing.

In gaining individual freedom we compromise some of our freedom to get group consensus and permit governing. We also gain the responsibility to maintain and defend freedom. Consensus and responsibility purchase our freedom. Without both there is no freedom.

What is "Philosophy of Democracy?" To me, the philosophy of democracy necessarily resides in the tension between individual freedom, individual responsibility, and consensus - a triangle of competing interests. Consensus necessarily means governing and government. The job of the philosophy of democracy is to provide the trial, proof, and disproof of ideas and ideals that are refined by experience that get us to the most advantageous balance possible in that triangle. It's foundation for us is the US Constitution. It is empirical as much as any human system of attitudes can be. It is often pragmatic. It must be dynamic because the situation is one of continuous change.

The challenges

Challenge 1: The Constitution

The pace of change in our world brought about by technological advances, is near exponential. If the US Constitution is the foundation of our philosophy of democracy, then can it be as dynamic as the rapidly changing situations within our country, a living document?

On one hand, many people today are unaware of the oppressive religious situations in Europe that compelled the writers of the US Constitution to guarantee us freedom of religion. Like zealots, they would label the US a "Christian" country and lead us toward a theocratic state. Many are unaware of the unjust legal processes that existed in Europe and compelled the writers of the Constitution to spell out legal freedoms. Today the right to a speedy trial is nearly meaningless with people hauled off to jail to wait up to a year for a hearing because they can't make bail - we have allowed rights to slip. There is a need for the US Constitution to be a bedrock foundation that isn't dislodged by poor memory. There is a valid case to be made for the Constitution to be carved in stone (Constitutional Conservatism).

On the other hand, the writers of the Constitution were not bothered by such problems as drug addiction; Internet crime; diseases and environmental damage caused by smoking and pollution; automobile accidents; and a myriad of other unforeseen modern problems. Problems aside, does the Constitution continue to reflect our collective values? As people see needs within our society that can be addressed collectively, does the Constitution permit us to do that? Can the Constitution grow with us, or does it legally handicap us by coming face to face with the Supreme Court and the Legislature? There is a valid case for the Constitution to be more easily adapted to the changes in values in our society.

For example, the recent legislative health care reform mandated that everyone purchase insurance. Subsequently the voters in Missouri passed a ballot initiative that stated that the Federal Government cannot force individuals to purchase insurance. Without near 100% participation, we go back to rapidly increasing health care costs for everyone and millions without access to health care. In a similar initiative, voters in California passed a ballot initiative banning same sex "marriage." Both issues will likely go to the Supreme Court where the public will of the moment will be endorsed or quashed by its ruling. Both issues might ultimately be resolved only by amendments to the Constitution, and may face constitutional challenges even then.

Challenge 2: Over-reliance on law

Every law made by the legislature puts restrictions on someone besides the offenders the law was intended to stop. You can't have enough laws. Really. To prevent every type of abuse of others, and there are new ways every day, and to regulate everything so that it can't be abused, you have to create endless laws. And each one of these laws puts restrictions on people who don't need them. And there is no way that anyone can learn and remember that many laws. The law is an endlessly growing burden on people.

As examples: I have noted the burdens placed on citizens by the states, in their mania to get everyone legal and paid. A few years ago I licensed a vehicle that I purchased. The State required that I drive to another county to get a receipt that said I had paid my property taxes in that county - they couldn't communicate with that county - and then I had to go to a city office to get a receipt that confirmed that I had paid my taxes in the city. The inspection for the vehicle noted items that weren't required for safety or inspection, but the dealership swore that they were - the government gave them a license to steal. My daughter recently had the identical experience at a national chain and simply went to an independent business which found fewer real problems.

Another example: Another person recently wanted to apply for a business license because she ran an Internet business out of her house. There were no people going there, no retail, no manufacturing or shipping - just a lone computer. The city wanted to query her neighbors and get a building inspector to inspect the site. The kinds of burdens placed on people by city governments make no sense. They are bureaucracies devoid of responsibility and accountability, free to run their own fiefdoms. A few people might fall through the cracks when it comes to paying their share, but basically the city's cure is worse than the disease. Is it any wonder why people don't want the government involved in their affairs?

In yet another situation, a friend recently moved and had to deal with the new city's sewer department. It demanded that the landlord sign the sewer agreement, not the renter. They absolutely refused to allow the landlord to fax a signed copy of the agreement to them - it had to be signed and mailed to them. So I guess if the landlord lived out of state the renter would have to track them down through the intermediary agency, travel to them, get the agreement signed, and bring it back. Whatever disease the sewer department was addressing, the cure was worse.

Would it be better to have uniform principles that guide cities, instead of endless rules for the whims of fiefdoms? In legal matters, is it important to have millions of laws that address every situation, built on case law? Or would it be better to have guiding principles over which intelligent people can make rulings? Case law is built on the ever expanding group of laws.

One of the results of innumerable laws is that we have become a very litigious society. Everyone sues everyone at the drop of a hat. Companies and lawyers have thrown in the towel on fighting this. A lawyer sues everyone in sight, no matter how ridiculous the situation, because he knows the other lawyers and the people they represent will settle rather than get into expensive litigation.

For example, one residential contractor was recently sued over a garage fire. The resident went on vacation, and as he was leaving pulled a garbage can full of smoldering grill ashes into the garage. A fire started directly above the garbage can, as attested to by the fire inspector. The contract work was not even close to where the fire started and there was no evidence of the contract work being a problem. The lawyer sued the contractor and got a settlement from his insurance company. This happens every day.

Is it better to rely on settlements? Or would it be better to require every civil suit to go to court, and possibly end the endless civil litigation that is plaguing our country?

Challenge 3: Communications freedom

Communications freedom is essential to democracy. Communications freedom safeguards the public from an out of control government, censorship, and powerful companies and individuals. Changes in technology have created problems with out of control communicators. It has raised serious questions about the need to regulate communications, which could be the end of true communications freedom.

The world of communications changed with the advent of the Internet. Broadband brought a communications superhighway to homes and businesses. Social networking sites put millions of people in constant contact with each other. People are in contact with each other and the world 24/7 through cell phones and computers. News travels instantaneously. News is ubiquitous. All knowledge is instantly available. Education is available to all from any place in the world. People can watch movies on demand and go to college and religious services in 3D environments. The entire world has changed, but not without raising complex issues.

Google sent a shock through the entire world when an unauthorized announcement said that Google had made an agreement with Verizon to supply communications at a faster rate for a price. Internet freedom was suddenly at risk from a company whose motto is "Do no evil." Google later denied the arrangement. Large corporations are poised to snatch any opportunity to make a bundle of money for nothing by charging for Internet services. So far that has not been permitted, and companies that supply services and individuals who purchase Internet service have not found it necessary to upgrade to more expensive bandwidth providers. Such an arrangement would further limit access to communications. Like the interstate highway system, infrastructure that is used for trucks, busses, and cars, the world benefits greatly from the communications superhighway for all.

On that same day, someone posted a tweet on Twitter that Bill Cosby had passed away. I saw it and informed my wife. The twit wasn't true, and caused grief for a number of people.

Not long ago a woman posed online as a young man, with the purpose of developing a romantic relationship with a young woman she didn't like and then destroying her. The woman's plan worked so well that the young woman killed herself. In another evil plan, mature adult men pose as younger men in social sites to gain access to teenagers for the purpose of meeting them to have sex with them. We greatly appreciate the freedom of the Internet, but it is also a land rife with outlaws.

Recently a blogger posted a 20+ year old film on YouTube in which today's Agriculture Secretary, Shirley Sherrod, appeared from the narrow story focus to be a racist, when she was actually talking about how she was transformed into a person who helped a white farmer. In a rush to head off problems, the Obama administration fired her without a hearing or without reviewing the facts. Also recently, Wikileaks released classified documents on the Internet from the military that placed US soldiers, Afghanistan soldiers, and Afghanistan civilians in danger. Today anyone can be a journalist and spread news, misinformation, and make ill-considered decisions about journalistic actions.

Cable news has created a competitive environment in which sensationalism and "who is first" reporting have dwarfed sound journalistic principles. Stories such as the Shirley Sherrod story, are often reported before they are checked with primary sources and fact checked.

Is it possible that we need a rating agency that will certify news agencies and journalists so that the public knows which ones to view with considerable skepticism? While there is an excellent role for bloggers and for news entertainers, should they be given the same respect and authority as a news service like NPR? And do we need laws about impersonating others on the Internet? Do we need consequences for leaking classified documents that put people in dangerous positions?

Challenge 4: Economics and job security

Democracy affords us the ability to choose our economic system. Overwhelmingly the US continues to choose capitalism. In capitalism the role of the state is de-emphasized, while private ownership and free markets are emphasized. Capitalism dominated the world from ancient times. It did not work well up until the 20th. Century. Prior to the 20th. Century, the unemployment rate in Europe was around 30%, and in the US often up to 25%. Keynesian economics revolutionized employment, reducing unemployment to under 10% in both the US and Europe. The difficulty with Keynesian economics is that it gives the government a larger role in creating bureaucratic style corporations that are not competitive and tend to be inefficient and unresponsive.

Regulation also came into existence in the 20th. Century, and prevented abberations in the system such as monopolies that pushed other companies out of competition and mercilessly drove up prices. Banks also became regulated so that people could save and borrow without high risk. Regulation kept the "playing field" level so that businesses could flourish and consumers would benefit.

Supply Side economics, introduced by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, emphasizes de-regulation, pure free markets, and stimulating business to reduce unemployment. Business is more competitive and more responsive to consumers. Supply Side economics was also revolutionary in impact on the economy, and worked well world-wide for 20 years, but in the first decade of the 00s, it failed to work as predicted. Business flourished, the stock market flourished, business failed to be responsive to consumers (quality diminished), wages lost ground, and unemployment did not keep pace with the rise in population. The movement of money through the economy slowed. Government debt skyrocketed.

During this recession, much of business has recovered and is doing well, but has failed to produce jobs in numbers that even approach the rise in population, let alone reduce unemployment to pre-recession levels. It is basically new industries promoted by government through economic stimulus during this recession that is producing new jobs.

Job security, which flourished during the first 60 years of the 1900s, has disappeared. Old companies such as DuPont that had never laid off workers during their previous ~200 years, suddenly started laying off people in the 1980s. Competition became intense and companies couldn't sustain marginally profitable ventures. Wall Street went into the mergers business, buying companies, reducing them to skeleton staffs, and then selling them to companies doing similar business, in the name of efficiency and stock inflation. This stripped geographic areas of jobs, while lining the pockets of investors. The flight of companies to foreign countries for cheap wages accelerated. Overall in the economy, people who had good wages have been tossed out and have had to accept jobs elsewhere at lower wages, wrecking their lifestyle and robbing their children of educational opportunities.

Unrestrained capitalism has sewn destruction of livelihoods in many geographical areas because of overly intense competition, and crowded out entire cottage industries in Third World countries, destroying national livelihoods. It puts a constant downward pressure on wages. Since the 1970s, people have gone from having some savings to primarily having debt. Basically people have supplemented lost wages and increasing expenses due to family size, by borrowing, which has created a perilous situation for all.

During this same time, the ranks of the wealthier have grown, and they have become even wealthier. The ranks of the lower economic class have swelled as the middle class has fallen into it. Economic disparity has grown substantially.

This recession was created primarily by Wall Street and Banking firms that gambled very loosely and irresponsibly with our money on ridiculous CDOs, Credit Default Swaps, and other financial instruments traded only by financial market insiders. When the housing bubble burst, the financial firms realized their precarious position and immediately requested "bank" status to get government protection, even though that meant additional oversight. The larger banks were also way over-leveraged because they were packaging and selling these primary packages of mortgage loans to investors, knowing that they had a lot of bad paper in them. No one seemed to suspect that the American Dream of home ownership was cyclical.

The result of financial institution misconduct has been the realization that government regulation is essential to safe-guarding our financial system, otherwise greed becomes reckless, as it was for Savings and Loan associations, companies such as Enron (the company that used deceptive accounting procedures), and for banks and financial companies.

Some want to say that government sponsored programs are poorly run compared to private companies. They like to cite Fannie May. Fannie May and Freddie Mac have been excellent government sponsored programs that made housing affordable to millions of Americans, since the 1930s, becoming the largest lenders and package buyers. Recently these profitable companies became insolvent because of the housing crisis. They fell victim to some of the bad mortgage paper floated by the banks, since they purchased those packaged mortgages so small banks could loan more. Does this mean that government should not be in the business of promoting private market programs? Or does it mean that private market programs are themselves suspect? Free Market purists claim that only the private market should be doing this, and that government should be completely out of the picture.

Knowing what we know now about free-market economies and their dangers, how do we adjust the economic system to prevent millions from losing wages, jobs, and homes, and put people back to work? When people are at the mercy of global economic movements, and private market profiteering (or privateering), should employment security be a goal of democracy? Free Market purists would say no - but they don't provide an alternative for keeping people employed. Business always acts in its own interest (which is how it probably should be), and does not act solely in the public interest. Interestingly the European countries, which have more government sponsored wage security, recovered faster from this recession, and they have equivalent or better living standards (with exceptions to both economic recovery and living standards). Should this factor into democratic philosophy?

Challenge 5: Polarization impeding legislation

In a democracy people vote on representation. Perhaps they should vote on issues, and they do this often through ballot referendums on major issues. But most generally it is the legislature that makes the laws by which we are governed. What do you do in a democracy when the legislature fails to take responsible actions for decades?

During the W. Bush administration when Republicans controlled the Congress, for four years Republicans refused to bring the Democrats legislation even to the floor for a vote. Democrats filibustered. During the first two years of the Obama administration, Democrats have refused to bring Republican legislation even to the floor for a vote. Republicans became the "party of no," to all Democratic legislation. Of course the opposing party's ideas did influence the legislation. But the cry by both parties is that the other side doesn't allow them to make legislation. Finger pointing excuses inaction and helps them win elections.

Lack of representation is the issue that fostered the American Revolution. Yet this is the very place the political system has gotten us. When one party wins a slim majority, their stance becomes, "Winner takes all," and they turn a deaf ear to the other party and the people that it represents. Parties in Congress do their best to stop the other party's legislation by consistently voting as a unanimous block against the other party's legislation.

Polarization is one likely major problem that led to the Civil War - people would not come to an agreement on slavery and with heated rhetoric they secedded, bringing a war. Today both parties seem to actually represent about half the voters, with conservatives making up around 60 percent of citizens, so one side or the other constantly gets ignored. For decades at a time we have a one party system that doesn't represent half the voters. When the power actually is relatively balanced, they are typically in gridlock, so nothing gets done. Politics ceases to be about representing people and their needs, and instead becomes about partisan fighting and ideology.

In watching democracy in action for over 50 years, I see a number of problems:

  • Congress is typically either deadlocked or tyrannical - unable to govern effectively. This is because of either having too small a majority to pass legislation, or having such a majority that they can pass whatever they want. Neither side is listening to the other. Congressional approval is in the teens.
  • We have increasing polarization that prevents our legislators from acting in our best interests - most of them act simply to get re-elected. People are so polarized by false rhetoric that they don't understand issues at all.
  • Congress does not understand economics, and I haven't seen much improvement in this during this major recession - which means Congress can't find the answers. Economics is a very complex subject, and even if the congressmen do understand it, they can't translate it to the public in understandable terms.
  • Congress should be accountable, and have minimal conflicts of interest.
  • It isn't clear at this point whether our current representative system works or needs to be scrapped, which isn't something I want to see happen. With an approval rating in the teens, that's not a vote of confidence. It depends on whether we can get control of polarization, and prevent corruption and special interest over-influence.
  • Our US Constitution gives us the authority and power of "We the people" to reap the benefits of self-governance and address the common good. It isn't we the businesses, or we the government, or we the anything else, although these things are important.

The omnibus spending bills that Congress votes into law are obscene examples of legislative irresponsibility. They exceed 3000 pages and no one reads them before voting on them. One year they voted that Congressional committees could look at individual tax records - an unlawful activity. A Congressional Aid took the fall for that "mistake." These bills typically have enough pork in them to make ham salad. They are irresponsible and lack accountability. Congress has cracked down some on pork, and money should go back to the States, but Congress should never pass legislation without it being reviewed and voted on.

Polarization is an insidious and very destructive problem. President Lincoln said, paraphrasing Christ, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." The Civil War followed. Polarization is not just a public interest issue. Politicians use polarization as an effective messaging tool to create solid voting blocks that will put them in office term after term. Polarization avoids addressing issues. Polarizing messaging simply selects divisive issues and paints them in "no compromise" terms. Polarization, fear mongering and mud-slinging have become the tools of choice for getting votes in tight elections, and the American people fall for it every time.

There might possibly be solutions to these problems, but not from what is seen in other countries. Both Britain and Israel end up with ineffective coalitions that last for years.

You potentially could require that up to 2/3 of Congressional Houses be independent. This would allow the two extremes, liberal (if there is such a thing) and conservative to present their arguments to a body that could vote effectively and not as a block. But with the current polarization in our society, the Congressmen would be responsive only to the coalition of voting blocks at home that would put them back in office. This would require a constitutional amendment.

Another answer is Public Oversight Boards. These would not create legislation or solutions, but they would be given the authority to set legislative agendas, established by voters, and insist on responsible and accountable legislative action. If there was deadlock, they might have the power to break it. They would also educate voters on the real issues and poll voters to make sure the legislation was to their liking. This would require a constitutional amendment.

Another potentially helpful solution is to require special interest groups to only be allowed to televise their positions, and not have direct contact with Congressmen. Another requirement could be to require the same exact funding go to the rebuttal (or confirmation). This way, issues, and their sponsors, would be completely in the open and fully addressed. This would require congressman to pass a law enacting this, which isn't likely. It could also be done with a constitutional amendment.


The once all powerful Christian Roman Empire fell because of a decline in values, health and environmental problems, political corruption, an ineffective economy, urban blight, and military spending. The Barbarians moved in. Today we have values declining (unbridled greed in financial and corporate markets destroying the economy), health (lack of access, soaring expense) environmental (global warming) problems, political corruption (special interest influence, polarization to buy votes, selling seats, tax evasion... a "swamp of corruption"), urban blight (look at any inner city, like St. Louis, and uninvited immigration), and military spending (decade long war in Iraq and Afghanistan). The barbarians (Al Qaida), are knocking at the gates. The hazard lights are blinking.

Democracy requires the responsibility and participation of its people. Countries with weak governments where there is no consensus of opinion and no interference in their citizen's affairs, like Somalia, live in anarchy. There is no safety, no medicine or other social programs, and no wealth. Life is futile and then you die. In a democracy, together we find ways to make it work for us through our government and our economic system.

Despite its potential problems, we have found that in democracy where people are allowed freedom of choice, most people mature into responsible and caring people without having to be shaped, broken, or destroyed by strict laws, close monitoring, and strong enforcement. Unlike those who are autocratic, we don't cane offenders, we don't make people clothe from head to toe, we don't report people to the police who don't pray often enough, we don't exclude those who don't look and talk like we do, we don't execute homosexuals... and we thrive. Democracy works. A little wiggle room, a mistake here and there, is necessary to growth for both individuals and society. We learn from our mistakes and our plurality of differences, and they make us stronger.

Let's talk about it.

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Philosophy of Democracy

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